Simi Linton, Phd. – Disability Arts Consultant (2002)

I have been asked to respond to a number of questions about changes in the American theatre in the last five years with respect to disability. I am interpreting that question broadly – disability as an idea, and disabled people as theatre and film professionals and as audience. I am also taking the liberty of talking not only about the recent past, but taking a longer look back and a peek at the future.

I’m wearing two hats here. One, as President of Disability/Arts, a consulting service to arts organizations, and two as a disabled woman with an investment in the outcome of theatre’s future “use” of disability.

Please note that when I speak of disabled people, I am using that as a broad inclusive category, including people with mobility impairments, a compromised immune system, people who are blind, people with mental illness etc.  It is that broad coalition of people that has made possible the disability rights movement and the modern disability community.

“Disability” as idea has been present in theatre since its inception. Too often, disability appears as metaphor for the frailties of the human race, a symbol of corruption and decay, of loss and tragedy, of isolation and loneliness – a potent reminder of any number of human and national problems. Alternatively, and usually even more reductionist, disabled characters are included to attest to the triumph of the human spirit, or to offer comic relief. Yet the authentic voice of disability – the voice of people who can attest to the lived experience of disability, what it means to be a disabled person in a particular time and place – has, with very, very few exceptions, not been heard. There have been some important appearances of new ideas in the last few years, though, with hints of more to come.

As for disabled people and theatre, I think there has been a dramatic increase in audience, in recent years, but only a minimal increase in disabled people employed in all aspects of the performing arts.

I think change in all these domains is likely to happen in the next few years and here are some reasons that I believe, and hope, it will happen.

One

Disabled people are everywhere these days – on supermarket checkout lines, in airports, at the library, on the bus, and, significantly, at the theatre.  Although there are still far too many disabled people in institutions, in segregated education, sheltered workshops and living in poverty (there is over 70% unemployment among people with significant disability), there is an increasing number of us who are employed, educated, informed, and engaged in the social and cultural life of this country. This latter group represents the most likely theatre-going audience, although outreach to all is part of the mission of some theatres.

Two

Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, it has been harder for colleges and universities to discriminate against applicants on the basis of disability.  As a result, more young disabled women and men are receiving advanced degrees. With increased integration in schools and in many social and cultural domains, the students are willing and able to go where disabled people have rarely gone before – into highly visible fields of endeavor, such as the performing arts.

Three

The ADA and other local legislation have also forced the hand of theatres across the nation to create accessible theatrical experiences for their audience.  There is hardly a theatre that has not grappled with the issue of wheelchair access, sign language interpreted performance, Braille programs and other forms of accommodations to audience members. Aided by state and regional arts councils, some groups have enthusiastically and creatively embraced this mandate, and others have dragged their heels and avoided it as much as possible. In between, are companies or houses which have wanted to move forward but have been stymied by lack of financial resources or the availability of people with expertise to help them move forward.

The reports that I get indicate that theatres which have made these changes have reaped enormous benefits in terms of audience. Some people I’ve spoken with say that the move to integrate their audience has had a positive and creative effect on their mission, and has caused them to reflect on the ideas they present to the public through the plays they choose, the interpretations they make of those plays and their casting decisions.

While the ADA also should have an impact on the accessibility of the behind-the-scenes spaces, on casting and on other hiring practices, it appears to me that most places have not gone that distance. The reasons for that are complex.

Four

There is a robust and exciting field of study called disability studies emerging in academic quarters. While it has been in existence for over fifteen years, it has become a “hot” topic in recent years, and has gained a lot of attention, both in academic journals and through articles in the New York Times, SF Chronicle, Boston Globe, USA Today, Wall Street Journal etc., indicating that it has “crossed over” and has entered the public consciousness. The field is similar in many ways to women’s studies or African-American studies, it is a cultural and political inquiry into disability.  In the same way that women’s studies, for instance, provided writers a philosophical basis for the examination of the way women have traditionally been depicted in theatre, film and literature, disability studies can provide playwrights and screenwriters the analytical tools to reconsider their depiction of disability.

Five

There are talented and well-prepared actors, playwrights, directors, performance artists, dancers, and all manner of theatre professionals working and prepared to work, given the chance. Disabled people, in record numbers, are emerging from schools of the arts, conservatories and drama schools.  I think those students have had a radicalizing effect on the teaching that goes on in those places – a broadening of the parameters of the ideal body, mode of speaking, and ways of moving.

This cadre of disabled people not only know their craft, but have grown up in a time in history when disabled people are openly fighting the oppression and stereotyping that have plagued us forever.  We are resources for the American theatre – people ready and eager to paint a new picture of disability, not only a more authentic one, but, I think, one more interesting and provocative than the very constricted, stereotyped views of our lives presented in theatre and film for decades. The film versions come readily to mind: Daniel Day Lewis, Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Audrey Hepburn, Jane Wyman, Raymond Burr, Lon Chaney, Gary Sinese, Eric Stoltz, Al Pacino, Leonardo di Caprio, Mary McDonnell, Charles Laughton, Peter Sellars, Patty Duke and countless other nondisabled actors.  While they have often rendered credible versions of disabled people, to my eye they seem too fixated on the quirks and ticks of the impairment, and seen innocent of the social and political contingencies that shape so much of disabled peoples lives. Of course, that is a writing and directing question as much as an acting one.

In the next few years, I hope to see increasingly authentic depictions of disabled people – utilizing the talent and skills of actors and writers who are willing to write a new story of disability. One that recognizes the real people that live in these bodies – and considers what disability means to us – not disability in an abstract metaphoric sense, but in the day to day. I will share with you what many of my compatriots say about that day to day experience – it is the barriers to full participation in society that enrage us and occupy most of our energy. What frustrates is what we can’t do – not because we are blind or use a wheelchair – but what we are forbidden to do, because blind people and wheelchair users are excluded. What we bring to the world is a perspective shaped by that social positioning and by our own quirky means of talking, hearing, moving etc. It is what I like to call the “vantage point of the atypical.”

I hope to see theatre that examines what disability means in society, and how the marginalization and alienation that so many disabled people experience are not inevitable facts of life, but socially determined and therefore subject to change. I am expecting theatre to not only mark the changes that are occurring, but to be a catalyst for such change. But, you will have to use us, meaning disabled people, and use us well, if you are going to do that.

Another question that was posed in this forum had to do with the remaining barriers to achieving inclusion and the support/actions needed to alleviate these barriers. In some ways I have addressed that here. Change will require a more active engagement with new ideas about disability and with people with expertise. This is new territory for many and it is naive to think any of us (and I include myself in that) can jump into this without preparation. I have included below a list of readings that may be of help. Conferences, workshops, curricula for theatre programs, etc. can all be part of shifting how we talk about disability.

In the past two years I have been encouraged by the ways that state and local arts associations have engaged with disability.  While most of the emphasis has been on attendance and participation of audience, there have been some efforts toward integration of theatre companies along disability lines, and encouragement of new talent. Several of the state councils have a mandate to include disabled people on their review panels as a means to ensure diversity.  The larger, for-profit theatres need similar stimuli to get their mojo working. That impetus may bubble up from the smaller theatres, as the artistic merits of productions that “take on” disability and cast disabled actors make the inauthentic, constricted versions implausible and unacceptable to the audience.

Simi Linton, Ph.D. is the President of Disability/Arts, a consulting service to arts organizations, and the author of Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (1998, New York University Press).

SOME READINGS OF INTEREST

Beach, Maria, and Leslie Pasternack.  “Making a Claim on the Empty Space: An Interview with Terry Galloway.”  Theatre InSight. 9.1 (1998): 50-54.

Brewer, Diane “West Side Silence: Producing West Side Story with Deaf and Hearing Actors.”   Theatre Topics 12.1(2002) 17-34.

Conley, Willy: 2 articles in DEAF WORLD: A HISTORICAL READER AND PRIMARY SOURCEBOOK. New York (2001): NYU Press. Editor Lois Bragg.

1) “Away from Invisibility, Toward Invincibility: Issues With Deaf Theatre Artists in America” (pp 51-67)

2) “In Search of the Perfect Sign-Language Script:  Insights into the Diverse Writing Styles of Deaf Playwrights” (pp 147-161)

Kuppers, Petra.  “Towards the Unknown Body: Silence, Stillness, Space in Mental Health Settings.”  Theatre Topics.  10.2 (2000): 129-143.

Lewis, Victoria Ann. 2000. “The Dramaturgy of Disability.”  In Points of Contact:  Disability, Art, and Culture, eds. Susan Crutchfield and Marcy Epstein, 93-108. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Linton, Simi “Disability and the Arts.” FYI, New York Foundation for the Arts, 16, (4), 9, 2001.

Lipkin, Joan and Ann Fox, “The Disability Project: Toward an Aesthetic of Access.”  Contemporary Theatre Review 11 (2001):  119-136.

Sandahl, Carrie  “Considering Disability: Disability Phenomenology’s Role in Revolutionizing Theatrical Space.”  Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism.  16.2 (Spring 2002): 17-32.

Sandahl, Carrie  “Bob Flanagan:  Taking It Like A Man.”  Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism.  15.1 (2000): 97-103.

Sandahl, Carrie “Performing Metaphor:  AIDS, Technology, and the Body.”  Contemporary Theatre Review:  The Performance of Disability Special Issue.  Ed.  Petra Kuppers. 11: 3-4 (2001): 49-60.

Sandahl, Carrie “Ahhhh…Freak Out!:  Metaphors of Disability and Femaleness in Performance.”  Theatre Topics. 9.1 (1999):  11-30.

Sandahl, Carrie  “Against Consciousness Raising.”  Access Expressed!  VSA of Massachusetts. (10: 26) 6. (available online)

Several articles in the issue of American Theatre of April 2001:

Introduction by Carrie Sandahl. “Seven Plays About Physical Difference” 22-28.

Tolan, Kathleen. 2001. “We Are Not a Metaphor.” 17-21,57-9.

Lewis, Victoria Ann.  “O Pioneers! Despite lingering barriers, artists with disabilities are making inroads into traditional training programs.”  29-31, 59-60.

Sharon Jensen, “Access, Activism & Art” : 15-16.

Lillie, Jim. “Step Right Up! A Denver troupe challenges audiences to say, ‘We are PHAMALy'”  32-33.

“Disability and Performance.”

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